Strixhaven: An Elves All The Way Down Review

Welcome to Strixhaven, Magic The Gathering‘s take on Wizard School. This set introduces new takes on five of Magic’s two-colour combinations in the form of Strixhaven’s colleges. Each college specialises in a different way to study Magic, so the set has a heavy Instant-and-Sorcery theme. Here at Elves All The Way Down, a new set means new cards to review, so let’s get to them.

As always, I’ll be giving each card a rating out of five, shown at the end of that card’s entry.

Callous Bloodmage

Callous Bloodmage {2}{B}  Creature — Vampire Warlock 2/1  When Callous Bloodmage enters the battlefield, choose one —  • Create a 1/1 black and green Pest creature token with “When this creature dies, you gain 1 life.”  • You draw a card and you lose 1 life.  • Exile target player’s graveyard.

Our first new tool isn’t an Elf, but gets to join the list of useful utility creatures that we often include in sideboards. Sometimes we just need to make our opponent not have a graveyard anymore. Callous Bloodmage is one of the best versions of this effect we’ve seen. When you don’t need to exile a graveyard, there are two other options you can choose from. To top it off, we can find him using Collected Company in Historic, Pioneer and Modern. Callous Bloodmage is a great addition to Green-Black Elf sideboards in multiple formats.

Accomplished Alchemist

Accomplished Alchemist {3}{G}  Creature — Elf Druid 2/5  {T}: Add one mana of any color.  {T}: Add X mana of any one color, where X is the amount of life you gained this turn.

The first Elf of the set is a bit of dud. Accomplished Alchemist might be a mana dork, but a four-drop mana dork needs to do a lot of work. It does makes me want to try a life-gain focused version of Elves with Essence Warden and some untap effects. However, most Elf decks aren’t running enough life-gain to make this card into anything more than an overcosted and over-statted Paradise Druid.

Ecological Appreciation

Ecological Appreciation {X}{2}{G}  Sorcery  Search your library and graveyard for up to four creature cards with different names that each have mana value X or less and reveal them. An opponent chooses two of those cards. Shuffle the chosen cards into your library and put the rest onto the battlefield. Exile Ecological Appreciation.

Now here’s the card in the set that I’m most excited to talk about. I fully understand that Ecological Appreciation won’t be replacing powerhouse cards like Collected Company or Chord of Calling anytime soon. But the sheer flexibility and power ceiling of this new card make it interesting to build around and try out. I’m a sucker for cards like this: Gifts Ungiven is one of my favourite cards of all time. Digging around for cool cards to include as a single copy to power up a card like Ecological Appreciation is always fun.

We’ve already had the chance to play this card on stream (over on Twitch) and it was more impressive than I expected. The best four card pile so far has been Shaman of the Pack, Skemfar Shadowsage, Elvish Harbinger and Sylvan Messenger.

Even though it won’t be making the cut in the most competitive Elf decks going forward, it’ll be a fun option to have.

Karok Wrangler

Karok Wrangler {4}{G}  Creature — Elf Druid 3/3  Magecraft — Whenever you cast or copy an instant or sorcery spell, put a +1/+1 counter on target creature you control.

Here’s the first of Strixhaven’s limited-focused Elf cards. Karok Wrangler is great in draft, but that’s where it’ll stay. Unfortunately, Elf decks are poorly positioned to take advantage of an ability that cares about casting multiple instants and/or sorceries.

Reckless Amplimancer

Reckless Amplimancer {1}{G}  Creature — Elf Druid 2/2  {4}{G}: Double Reckless Amplimancer’s power and toughness until end of turn.

Another limited card, so there’s not much to say here. It is interesting that power/toughness doubling effects work really well with lords, at least. Chameleon Colossus this is not.

Kianne, Dean of Substance//Imbraham, Dean of Theory

Kianna is an Elf Druid, but that’s all she’s really got going on. At three mana, you want a creature to do more than maybe draw you a land. The late game mana-sink to make Fractals is a nice place to put excess mana, but we can do better in the three-drop slot.

If Kianne was good enough to include in our decks, it would at least be fun that we also had a Bird Wizard we could sometimes play. However, I can’t come up with a theory with enough substance about an Elf deck that would want to include Kianne or Imbraham.

Witherbloom Command

 Witherbloom Command {B}{G}  Sorcery  Choose two —  • Target player mills three cards, then you return a land card from your graveyard to your hand.  • Destroy target noncreature, nonland permanent with mana value 2 or less.  • Target creature gets -3/-1 until end of turn.  • Target opponent loses 2 life and you gain 2 life.

Witherbloom Command is an interesting, cheap utility spell. Unfortunately, the sorcery speed really kills it. Had the command been an instant, allowing for the -3/-1 mode to be used in combat while destroying a Chalice of the Void, maybe it would have had a chance. Similarly, if the destruction mode could hit permanents that cost three, like Ensnaring Bridge, that might have been good. However, the actual card doesn’t do enough to warrant trying over cards like Abrupt Decay or Assassin’s Trophy. This limits Witherbloom Command’s utility to the format where those two cards aren’t available: Standard. Elves aren’t doing great in Standard with only one set of real support, but if the upcoming D&D set gives us enough new tools to play with, Witherbloom Command might be an interesting sideboard card.

Necroblossom Snarl

 Necroblossom Snarl  Land  As Necroblossom Snarl enters the battlefield, you may reveal a Swamp or Forest card from your hand. If you don’t, Necroblossom Snarl enters the battlefield tapped.  {T}: Add {B} or {G}.

The Snarls add to the growing selection of of enemy-colour duals we have access to in Standard and Historic. While they’re probably not out-competing their fastland equivalents, they are a big boon to Standard. Let’s hope for some more Black Elves we want to cast using this to join Skemfar Shadowsage and Harald in the D&D set. Drow anyone?

Strixhaven Mystical Archive

Strixhaven also brought a swathe of powerful reprints to the Historic format in the form of Mystical Archive cards. Unfortunately for us Elves players, all of the Archive cards are instants or sorceries, so we don’t gain any old Elves. The only card that Elves have played historically – Natural Order – they preemptively banned. What’s worse is that a lot of them are powerful removal spells. If you’ve never had two mana dorks Electrolyzed, you’ve lived a blessed life. What this has effectively done is increase the power of the Historic format as a whole, without adding anything to Elves. As a result, Elves now feel much worse off. At least we get Krosan Grip, Inquisition of Kozilek and Weather the Storm for potential use in the sideboard.

They even included two boardwipes to really drive the point home.

Class Dismissed

That’s everything we’ve got to cover from Strixhaven. We’ll see everyone for another review when Modern Horizons 2 rolls around. While we wait for that release, we’ll be doing a retrospective on the effect Kaldheim has had on Elves. Join us for that next time.

Cuties of Strixhaven

Magic: The Gathering – Strixhaven’s Cutest Cards Ranked

The year is 2021, and the Hexagorgon team have finally been invited to enrol at magic school. No, you haven’t fallen through a wormhole: we’re talking about Magic the Gathering. It’s time to reveal Strixhaven’s cutest cards!

Wizards’ take on the genre transposes the action to university level -to the relief of adult fans everywhere. Strixhaven Univsersity introduces a new plane, Arcavios, as well as new identities for the enemy colour pairs, which are flavoured as competing Colleges. We’ve been leaning into that friendly rivalry in our drafts, so away from the table the title of Strixhaven’s Cutest College is hotly contested.

For those of us in the UK, the five colleges seem more like university departments: each one specialises in a different type of magic, with its own legendary dragon founder, campus, and token mascot. On the other hand, first-years in Strixhaven typically take a mixture of courses from different colleges, so joining a college is rather like choosing a major in the US system.

School Rules

Strixhaven poses a couple of difficulties for connoisseurs of cuties. Because of the focus on spells, we can’t zero in on creature cards as much as usual. Mark Rosewater has written at length about the challenge of designing a ‘spells matter’ set -it’s worth a read if you’re interested in the intersection of mechanics and lore. The key design puzzle was how to include enough creatures for Limited decks to function; so look out for modal double-faced cards, token-creators, and a new way of interacting with the sideboard via ‘lesson’ sorceries.

An additional difficulty for us was that most of the creature cards are dedicated to depicting the students and faculty of Strixhaven. They didn’t make the list because we felt it was important to keep the ‘no people’ criterion. On the plane of Arcavios, a lot of the people aren’t humanoid, so we’re tweaking the rules to reflect that:

  • No snakes
  • No spiders
  • No sapience

In the spirit of magical school tropes, we’ll also be awarding points for the first time. (Don’t worry, Cutie Points are legally distinct from House Points.) For each category, the cutest five cards will earn their College points. Mono-coloured cards that fit into two Colleges split their points equally between Colleges. Fifth place earns just one point; fourth, two; and so on until we hand out five points for the cutest card in each category.

Now that term is underway, we can confidently guide you through the most visually appealing cards Strixhaven has to offer. May the cutest College win!

Strixhaven’s cutest classes

Here at Hexagorgon, we’ve been poring over the module choices to make sure we get our recommended dose of cuteness this semester. After much debate, here’s what the team’s timetable looks like.

Fractal Summoning card art

5. Fractal Summoning

One for the resident maths nerds, Fractal Summoning looks tough and might also require a wetsuit for when that wave function collapses. It’s an interesting choice for the emblematic Quandrix spell: besides the characteristic low-poly design, this looks like it could be one of Prismari College’s expressive masterpieces.

Inkling Summoning card art

“Think of an insult so vicious, so vulgar, that you hesitate to speak it aloud. The strongest, most aggressive inklings are born from such scorn.”—Embrose, Silverquill dean

4. Inkling Summoning

Inklings have no business being this cute. They’re just mischievous spirits cursed into being by the school-bully-trope students -but look at their little faces! There’s a lot I’d like to say about Silverquill College (paragons of style, really?), but we’ve agreed to put up with them if they’ll teach us how to summon inklings.

3. Introduction to Frogs

Nobody knows why Mr Murcurial Transformation wants a crab. That frog is a fine specimen (and it’s certainly more cute than the tentacled monstrosity hanging in the shadows.) We simply couldn’t choose between these adorable amphibians. Have you ever finished a class feeling as thrilled as Ms Expanded Anatomy here? Just make sure you’ve definitively turned your sample into a frog before super-sizing it. People have been saying for years that we should make Mercurial Transformation a pre-requisite for Expanded Anatomy, but those huge monsters in the lake don’t spawn themselves.

Elemental Summoning card art

2. Elemental Summoning

One thing I love about the art direction for Prismari College is how the caster is affected by the spell. But you don’t have to be an arts major to appreciate having one of these summonings on your side. Elemental Summoning is impressive enough to be fearsome in the wrong hands, but in this state -with ink and water still twisting together – its big jelly fangs are still cute. Everyone wants to try the musical theatre class, even if our elemental summonings aren’t as splashy.

Pest Summoning card art

1. Pest Summoning

They say it’s tough at the top, but with cuties like these, it really isn’t. Pest Summoning easily tops the list of Strixhaven’s cutest lessons. If you can’t get the real thing, these would also make adorable pet costumes. (Picture taken after feeding Captain Horn, while Mr Nibbles practises waiting.)

What we learned

  • Lorehold misses out on the points for cute classes, even though a few of us were keen to sign up.
  • Summoning is confirmed as the cutest expression of magical power.
  • Changing the shape or size of animals is never not funny. (Don’t try this at home.)

College standings:

Extracurricular tokens

I would like to take this opportunity to tell you about Mage Tower. Now, I know wizarding sports don’t have a reputation for balance, but Wizards of the Coast did not even try.

In Mage Tower, teams from rival colleges test their spellwork in a stadium-sized capture the flag game. The aforementioned towers stand at either end of the pitch, serving as bases to which each team must return the enemy ‘flag’. In contrast to Quidditch, students are encouraged to get their wands out; in fact, magical combat seems to be the point. (I’d like to see a card representing that one time Lorehold fielded a team of four Loxodon rugby players and a shield mage, though.)

So the game is mostly a wizard battle, with the caveat that spells that would harm a player, spectator, or the stadium at large are ‘nullified’. (For the benefit of the rules lawyers: no, it’s not clear whether that means Strixhaven has a list of banned spells, or that players incur penalties for spellwork warranting nullification.)

Anyway, the reason Mage Tower is here in our article about cuties is that it provides an in-universe role for Strixhaven’s creature tokens. That’s right: the colleges have mascots! 

The downside is that Mage Tower is all about kidnapping the opposing team’s mascot and sticking it on top of your tower. In other words, the mascot is the flag. Never mind that Lorehold’s mascot is a statue inhabited by the spirit of some long-dead bloke; he was probably bored anyway. Nerds that we are, Hexagorgon aren’t too keen on Mage Tower, but the mascots themselves are worth a look.

Full Time Scores

One point each goes to Prismari, Silverquill and Witherbloom for their mascots. Unfortunately, Quandrix fielded a snake-fractal, in violation of the No Snakes rule; and Lorehold, as I mentioned, just has a dude wearing a statue, which contravenes the No Sapience rule.

At close of play, Prismari and Witherbloom look to be extending their lead on the back of a cute Mage Tower performance. Quandrix and Silverquill sit comfortably in the middle of the field, but Lorehold’s suspension is a real blow for the College. They have yet to win a point, despite their popularity among the team.

Strixhaven’s Cutest Spells

Once you’ve settled in at Strixhaven and accustomed yourself to the timetable, you’ll probably want to pick up some actual spells. For the cutest college experience overall, Hexagorgon recommends looking into the following five:

Magma Opus card art

5. Magma Opus

If you only conjure one thing today, make it a majestic elephant. The punnery of the title aside, Magma Opus illustrates the character Wizards’ design teams wanted to impart to Prismari College: magic should be used for grand gestures, masterpieces of expression. Surely it helps if they’re cute, too?

Blot Out The Sky card art

A drop of ink is a nuisance. A torrent of inklings is a menace.

4. Blot Out The Sky

There are no two ways about it: Silverquill is the College of jerks. Dip into Mark Rosewater’s Vision Design article, and you’ll find Silverquill’s student archetypes are listed as ‘ROTC, “mean girls,” jocks, privileged kids, overachievers’. I say this in order that nobody underestimates the role of Inklings in making Silverquill relatable. These cheeky chappies blunt a lot of sharp edges, nudging Silverquill from awkward Slytherin reference to sick burn central. It’s a good look.

Elemental Masterpiece card art

3. Elemental Masterpiece

Largely thanks to the Mystical Archive, Strixhaven has some of the best geometric art of recent sets. As the official College of mathematics, Quandrix gets cards like Master Symmetrist and Square Up, but Prismari has more than its fair share of them too. Elemental Masterpiece is our favourite though, on the basis that everybody likes dolphins.

Essence Infusion card art

2. Essence Infusion

The only mono-coloured card that made the list depicts a fight between students from the two Colleges that can cast it: Silverquill and Witherbloom. There’s an impressive amount of storytelling going on, with Mr Witherbloom’s determined glare and Mr Silverquill finally conceding in the face of a suddenly ginormous pest. “Oh lawd,” we all cried, “he comin’!” While we wouldn’t want to face down this pest in a fight, we would absolutely take him home and feed him treats/inconvenient corpses. Bonus points for the snappy flavour text:

“I’d say it’s still a fair fight—now my friend is about the size of your ego.”

-Mr Witherbloom, probably

Golden Ratio card art

1. Golden Ratio

This was a surprisingly easy first pick from the spells category. Yes, we did spot the snake in there, but it’s relatively friendly-looking, and the rest of the creatures quickly draw the eye away. This is the kind of art that makes you wish Magic cards were twice as big, just so you could pick out all of the details. We love the cephalopod representation, but even if you don’t you have to admit that geometry plus fluffy creatures is a win.

What We Learned

Things are looking really bad for Lorehold. Prismari College leads the field by a nose with 10.5 points thanks to Magma Opus and Elemental Masterpiece. We expected Prismari to score well on spells because it’s the College that cares most about casting big flashy things. Meanwhile, Quandrix, Silverquill and Witherbloom are close on its heels with 7-8 points each. It looks like the fight for the title of Strixhaven’s Cutest College is going to a decider!

College Standings

Strixhaven’s Cutest Creatures

Traditionally the bread-and-butter of a cuties review, creatures have had to take a backseat at Strixhaven. Nevertheless, I’m thrilled to introduce the last five cuties by way of a decider.

Kelpie Guide card art

5. Kelpie Guide

The final furlong starts with a guide, appropriately enough. With a Blue mana cost, Kelpie Guide is castable in a Prismari deck, but the flavour text makes it clear this flighty beast favours Quandrix mages. For a slimy deer, it is undeniably cute. Would score better if I weren’t deeply suspicious about its motivations.*

*According to Scottish folklore, that glistening hide is there to stick unwary riders in place, allowing the kelpie to pull its charge underwater and devour them.

Springmane Cervin card art

4. Springmane Cervin

In fourth place we find another rather uncanny creature, albeit this time without the murderous connotations. Admittedly, Springmane Cervin does look like a curious mage has put a greyhound skin on a llama, but what’s not to like? This cutie proves you don’t have to resemble a real-world animal to capture hearts…

Springmane Cervin card art

“Hey, my great-great-grandfather had a dog just like that!”—Dradiel, Lorehold mage-student

3. Stonebinder’s Familiar

…But it certainly helps! Stonebinder’s Familiar is, quite simply, the best boy. We’re all history fans here, but it’s fair to say that Lorehold would be faring better in the rankings if they focused on resurrecting pets rather than persons of historical import. We particularly like how the flavour text leaves the precise story open to imagination.

Mila, Crafty Companion card art

2. Mila, Crafty Companion

The only criticism levelled at Stonebinder’s Familiar is that it could be cuddlier. Mila clears that hurdle by a mile. While her standard art earned her a place on the podium, it’s the alternative art by Magic veteran Yongjae Choi that clinched second place. The way he makes her look all soft and curious while also crackling with magical energy is masterful. How did Mila miss out on the top spot? Casually incinerating people. Sorry.

Blex, Vexing Pest card art

Pests are typically harvested before they outgrow their enclosures. Blex is far from typical.

1. Blex, Vexing Pest

You may have noticed that we like our pests. Of all the pests at Strixhaven, Blex is by far the biggest, the grumpiest, and -in our estimation -the cutest. He escaped Witherbloom’s pest enclosures after noticing none of his pest friends were coming back. (Please excuse the bugs; they’re part of the escape plan.)

Apparently, new Witherbloom College students are routinely despatched to search for him in the bayou -hence the card’s reverse, Search for Blex. We just think he’s neat.

The Bottom Line

We have a winner: congratulations to Witherbloom, Strixhaven’s cutest College! Pestilence has never looked so good.

Strixhaven campus rooftop view

Jamie’s Top 10 Magic Cards of 2020

Hello everyone and well done on surviving 2020. With the year finally coming to a close, I thought I’d look back at my personal highlights and favourite cards of the last 12 months. I’ll get to the main list momentarily, but first…

Dishonourable Mentions

Skyclave Apparition

Skyclave Apparition {1}{W}{W}  Creature — Kor Spirit 2/2  When Skyclave Apparition enters the battlefield, exile up to one target nonland, nontoken permanent you don’t control with converted mana cost 4 or less.  When Skyclave Apparition leaves the battlefield, the exiled card’s owner creates an X/X blue Illusion creature token, where X is the converted mana cost of the exiled card.

I know Skyclave Apparition is a good card and I accept that it’s probably better for the game that it exists. However, as a player whose favourite deck is synergy-based and plays to the board, my strategy is easily dismantled by the Apparition’s ability. The fact that when the Apparition dies (often from having to trade with one of my Elves) I only get back a rubbish 3/3 rather than my Elvish Archdruid really hurts me on a personal level.

Omnath, Locus of Creation

Omnath, Locus of Creation {R}{G}{W}{U}  Legendary Creature — Elemental 4/4  When Omnath, Locus of Creation enters the battlefield, draw a card.  Landfall — Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control, you gain 4 life if this is the first time this ability has resolved this turn. If it’s the second time, add {R}{G}{W}{U}. If it’s the third time, Omnath deals 4 damage to each opponent and each planeswalker you don’t control.

Omnath mirrors were a guilty pleasure of mine. While I understand that the card was probably a bad idea for Standard and put a lot of players off, I will miss being able to have two of these decks jam huge turns against each other. Omnath, you will be remembered, for better or for worse.

Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath

Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath {1}{G}{U}  Legendary Creature — Elder Giant 6/6  When Uro enters the battlefield, sacrifice it unless it escaped.  Whenever Uro enters the battlefield or attacks, you gain 3 life and draw a card, then you may put a land card from your hand onto the battlefield.  Escape—{G}{G}{U}{U}, Exile five other cards from your graveyard. (You may cast this card from your graveyard for its escape cost.)

Blue-Green is my favourite colour combination. If you’d told me a year ago that they would print a recurrable threat in my favourite colours that drew cards, ramped and gained life and was legendary to boot, I’d have been pretty stoked. What we got though, was a card tuned up so much that it became a ubiquitous include across multiple formats and made everyone even more sick of Simic, especially after the Oko debacle. I should be happy that my favourite colours get the best toys. Instead, I’m just tired of them breaking formats and making everyone sad.

Now, a note on the actual top 10. This is an extremely subjective list – I’ve picked cards that exemplify high points of the year for me in terms of Magic. This includes cards that represent favourite draft archetypes, novel mechanics, great art and new cards for old decks. Anyway, without further ado:

#10: Chromatic Orrery

Chromatic Orrery {7}  Legendary Artifact  You may spend mana as though it were mana of any color.  {T}: Add {C}{C}{C}{C}{C}.  {5}, {T}: Draw a card for each color among permanents you control.

We start with a costly colourless card from M21. However, it’s not Ugin. Instead, it’s the 7-mana mana rock, Chromatic Orrery. This card hasn’t made much of a splash in competitive formats, but it has become a pet card of mine.

In Magic: The Gathering Arena, it lets me build what can only be called nonsense 5-colour Green decks: a bunch of ramp, Karn, the Great Creator and some big X-spells to finish things off. Need to draw more cards off your Orrery? Fetch Sphinx of the Guildpact from your Karnboard. Need to kill your opponent dead? Electrodominance will do the trick. Need to hit more lands and spells? Escape to the Wilds costs 5 mana and that’s exactly the amount Orrery makes. I’m not saying this deck or Chromatic Orrery were good, but I sure did find them fun, and that’s why it’s one of my favourite cards this year.

Unfortunately, a lot the key pieces I was using didn’t survive rotation, but the Orrery itself did. Maybe it’ll make a comeback later on this year, but for now, it’ll live on in my memory.

#9: Miara, Thorn of the Glade

Miara, Thorn of the Glade {1}{B}  Legendary Creature — Elf Scout 1/2  Whenever Miara, Thorn of the Glade or another Elf you control dies, you may pay {1} and 1 life. If you do, draw a card.  Partner (You can have two commanders if both have partner.)

They made my favourite tribe a draft archetype in a Commander product, you say? Count me in. It’s been a long while since I was able to draft Elf tribal in any format (last time Lorwyn flashback drafts were on Magic Online, to be exact). As a result, I was very happy to find out that this year’s multiplayer product was an EDH draft format called Commander Legends. The very first time I got to draft the set, I managed to pull together a very strong version of the BG Elves archetype with Miara and Kamahl, Heart of Krosa as the commanders. Kamahl might as well be an honorary Elf as far as I’m concerned.

My experiences playing the deck were a blast and it was Miara who led the charge. Let’s hope that BG Elves make the upcoming Kaldheim an enjoyable draft format.

#8: Indulging Patrician

Indulging Patrician {1}{W}{B}  Creature — Vampire Noble 1/4  Flying  Lifelink (Damage dealt by this creature also causes you to gain that much life.)  At the beginning of your end step, if you gained 3 or more life this turn, each opponent loses 3 life.

Indulging Patrician wins my award for best art of the year. Does that award count for anything? Not really, but it’s how it made this list. Miranda Meeks really knocked this one out of the park. The visual storytelling in the piece combined with the strong use of colour hit me immediately. It only got better the more details I spotted.

It also helps that the WB archetype that Indulging Patrician is the signpost uncommon for is quite fun. (Even if it isn’t my favourite archetype in the set – more on that later). I drafted the set a lot and had fun with multiple copies of Indulging Patrician closing out games with alarming speed.

#7: Dreamtail Heron

Dreamtail Heron {4}{U}  Creature — Elemental Bird 3/4  Mutate {3}{U} (If you cast this spell for its mutate cost, put it over or under target non-Human creature you own. They mutate into the creature on top plus all abilities from under it.)  Flying  Whenever this creature mutates, draw a card.

Dreamtail Heron is here as a poster bird for the Mutate mechanic. Despite initial concerns that the mechanic would lead to too much rules complexity, the designers at Wizards of the Coast kept things manageable. In part, that meant ensuring cards with Mutate didn’t come with a pile of additional complications. (I’m looking at you, Characteristic Defining Abilities.) The mechanic played a lot better than expected, especially with this year’s Magic mostly being played on Arena, which handled all the details of the mechanic for players. I found the mechanic itself extremely enjoyable, despite the risk involved with going all-in on one creature.

So, why did I pick Dreamtail Heron? Well, my favourite thing to do in the format was to mutate a Dreamtail Heron onto a Thieving Otter. Not only do you get draw cards from the interaction (the best thing to do in Magic), you also get to give a cute otter some majestic wings. That’s a win-win from me.

#6: Llanowar Visionary

Llanowar Visionary {2}{G}  Creature — Elf Druid 2/2  When Llanowar Visionary enters the battlefield, draw a card.  {T}: Add {G}.

I’ve always said that my favourite card in Elves was Elvish Visionary (to the point where I’m a little sad most Modern lists have cut it). Such an innocuous card at face value, Elvish Visionary has been the glue holding together a lot of the decks I’ve played over the years. This year, Wizards decided to mash together my favourite elf with one of the best mana-elves from the very beginning of Magic: Llanowar Elves. What we got was a card that, while not the best in either slot, fulfils two key roles.

Llanowar Visionary made it into my Historic Elves decks for a short while before Jumpstart made Elvish Archdruid legal in the format. I even tried it in Pioneer, where Archdruid isn’t available, and it managed to advance the board state while digging for key pieces. However, I think Llanowar Visionary‘s time to shine has yet to come. Kaldheim is just round the corner and I’m hoping for my favourite tribe to make a foray into Standard for the first time since Dominaria rotated.

#5: Sprite Dragon

Sprite Dragon {U}{R}  Creature — Faerie Dragon 1/1  Flying, haste  Whenever you cast a noncreature spell, put a +1/+1 counter on Sprite Dragon.

When I’m not playing Elves, I enjoy playing a vary wide range of decks in all sorts of formats. A pet deck style of mine is ‘Miracle Grow’: you play cheap creatures that grow as you play spells and protect them with light disruption while they finish the game for you. Sprite Dragon, along with M21’s reprint of Quirion Dryad, rekindled my interest in the deck and I’ve been jamming it in Historic alongside Deeproot Champion from Ixalan. I’m happy that the faerie dragon has given me another chance to play the deck, and I was pleasantly surprised to see it make it all the way back to Vintage as a threat that benefits from all the restricted cards.

#4: Sublime Epiphany

Sublime Epiphany {4}{U}{U}  Instant  Choose one or more —  • Counter target spell.  • Counter target activated or triggered ability.  • Return target nonland permanent to its owner’s hand.  • Create a token that’s a copy of target creature you control.  • Target player draws a card.

As mentioned previously, I drafted a lot of M21. I found the format extremely fun and my favourite archetype was UR spells. I wanted to include Sublime Epiphany here as a representative of that draft format, but also as my favourite card combo to try for when drafting the set. It might be a little Magical-Christmas-Landy, but I managed it multiple times.

All you need is a Sublime Epiphany and as many copies of Shipwreck Dowser as you can get. Now you can lock your opponent out in a manner similar to the Modern Eternal Command decks of old.

Counter your opponent’s spell, copy your Dowser and get back your Sublime Epiphany. Also, draw a card and maybe bounce a thing. The world is now yours. Opponent tries to get round this by not doing anything on their turn? Just bounce their best thing, copy your Dowser, draw a card and get back your Epiphany. Congratulations, you’ve most likely won the game.

Best New Old Card: Bramblewood Paragon

Bramblewood Paragon {1}{G}  Creature — Elf Warrior 2/2  Each other Warrior creature you control enters the battlefield with an additional +1/+1 counter on it.  Each creature you control with a +1/+1 counter on it has trample.

Before we move on to the top 3, I wanted to give out a Best New Old Card award. The ‘Best New Old Card’ award is given to a card that’s been out for a while already, but found new use in my decks due to other new cards’ being printed or changes in formats and metagames.

Bramblewood Paragon is an elf that gives a payoff for playing Warriors in your deck. I’ve always kept it in the back of my mind, but it’s never seemed good enough to include in my elf decks because the warrior count has never been high enough.

However, this changed in 2020 when a new version of Modern Elves was brought to my attention by a viewer. This new variant has a warrior and +1/+1 counters subtheme going on. Bramblewood Paragon pairs perfectly with Growth-Chamber Guardian, turning them into 3/3 Squadron Hawks with trample rather than flying. Joraga Warcaller spreads the benefit to your whole team. A card that will show up later on in this list gives +1/+1 counters to the creature it finds.

This new version of Elves is great fun and brings a new angle from which to attack the Modern metagame, with a more aggressive bent. Being able to pick from multiple variants of the deck is always an advantage.

#3: Turntimber Symbiosis//Turntimber, Serpentine Wood

Turntimber Symbiosis {4}{G}{G}{G}  Sorcery  Look at the top seven cards of your library. You may put a creature card from among them onto the battlefield. If that card has converted mana cost 3 or less, it enters with three additional +1/+1 counters on it. Put the rest on the bottom of your library in a random order.

When the Modal Double-Faced Cards were announced, there was a lot of scepticism surrounding them. It has been dangerous in the past to allow decks to run low lands counts and still be able to cast spells. Goblin Charbelcher and Oops All Spells can utilise these new cards to cast their combo pieces that rely on the decks’ not having any actual land cards in them. As a result, these styles of deck have had a resurgence in Modern.

Turntimber, Serpentine Wood  Land  As Turntimber, Serpentine Wood enters the battlefield, you may pay 3 life. If you don’t, it enters the battlefield tapped.  {T}: Add {G}.

However, I’m here to talk about the more fair uses of the MDFCs. In a deck that only wants lands that make Green mana (Elves), the opportunity cost of including Turntimber, Serpentine Wood is extremely low. The upside in the lategame is huge. Instead of drawing another land, we effectively draw the best creature in the top seven cards of our library. We can hit a Craterhoof, we can hit a Lord and even if we hit a less-than-stellar creature, it gets to come in with three +1/+1 counters, making it a threat by itself. The best ‘miss’ I’ve had is Steel Leaf Champion, for a 8/7 elf that’s hard to block. The counters even synergise with Bramblewood Paragon and Growth-Chamber Guardian in the Bramble Elves deck to give trample or go fetch another Guardian.

Turntimber Symbiosis is the best sort of card a tribal player such as myself could hope for from a set which doesn’t include your prefered tribe as a theme. It joins other favourite cards like Collected Company and Chord of Calling as great options for Green-based creature decks.

#2: Conspicuous Snoop

Conspicuous Snoop {R}{R}  Creature — Goblin Rogue 2/2  Play with the top card of your library revealed.  You may cast Goblin spells from the top of your library.  As long as the top card of your library is a Goblin card, Conspicuous Snoop has all activated abilities of that card.

Despite my love for Elves, I’m not a purely one-tribe kind of person. I really enjoy tribal synergies wherever I find them. From Merfolk to Elves, from Cats to Scarecrows, if I can find some lords and/or some payoffs, I’ll give it a go.

Core 21, in addition to making a bunch of early entries on this list, gave my second favourite tribe a new toy to work with. Conspicuous Snoop made me hopeful for Goblins in Historic and gave us some great new combos to work with in Modern. While Jumpstart pushed Historic Goblins too far with the addition of Muxus, Goblin Grandee, Modern Goblins have been a blast. Snoop allows us to combo off almost as if we were playing Splinter Twin – getting to play our normal strategy (a tribal deck, rather than a tempo deck in Twin’s case) with a combo that can immediately end the game always looming for the opponent to worry about.

To top it off, Conspicuous Snoop also has great art. A characteristically comedic goblin, Snoops can’t help but fail at sneaking around, but we love him anyway.

#1: Allosaurus Shepherd

Allosaurus Shepherd {G}  Creature — Elf Shaman 1/1  Allosaurus Shepherd can’t be countered.  Green spells you control can’t be countered.  {4}{G}{G}: Until end of turn, each Elf creature you control has base power and toughness 5/5 and becomes a Dinosaur in addition to its other creature types.

There is no other card that I could give my #1 card of 2020 to than Allosaurus Shepherd. The best elf printed this year – in the Jumpstart Elf pack no less – brings so much to the table that I’m sad I don’t get to play it in the formats between Legacy and Historic.

Allosaurus Shepherd provides insurance against counterspells for all of our spells (even cards like Collected Company or Green Sun’s Zenith) while also giving us an alternate win-con by mounting all our elves onto dinosaurs and mauling our opponent. This activation also provides safety against damage- or toughness-based sweepers and a way of attacking for chip damage by threatening to use it.

All in all, it’s probably no surprise that Allosaurus Shepherd is my favourite card of the year, seeing as I’ve even tried jamming it in Vintage (to little success so far, but I have high hopes). Let’s hope that 2021 provides us with as good an elf as 2020 did. Here’s looking forward to Kaldheim.